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Pen pals connect Cuba, Chimacum

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Ten-year-old Diego Garcia of Chimacum would love to be able to go to Cuba some day to meet the 25 pen pals he has been communicating with for the past three years, and maybe go fishing with a few of them.

Thanks to his neighbor Heather Harding, a tour guide for Classic Journeys, Garcia has sent students in Cuba samples of leaves from the Pacific Northwest, drawings of his hiking trips and letters in English.

In exchange, Harding has brought back thick envelopes to Garcia, full of drawings, a few leaves (including mango leaves), letters in Spanish and an invitation to come watch television in Cuba since Garcia’s home does not have a TV set.

Harding, Garcia and his mother, Lorena Murray, recently sat in Harding’s living room, looking over some of the artwork from students in Cuba, reflecting on how valuable the communication trade has been to all of them.

They are worried that the letters could end soon should President-elect Donald Trump follow through on threats to stop the diplomatic relationship between the two countries that President Barack Obama had started.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say 9.5,” said Garcia of how important it is to him to keep up the exchange. “It’s nice to learn about other people, and I want a relationship between America and Cuba to keep on going and not be shut down. It would be nice to share what we have in America and what they have in Cuba. They don’t have a lot of paper and chocolate, and it would be nice to share.”

Murray said she feels like she, Garcia and Harding have all gotten to know the students and their teacher, Maria Antonia Cabrera Graveran, at Centro Mixto Republica Oriental Del Uruguay in the community of Las Terrazas, located in Candelaria, a town in the province of Artemisa. It’s about an hour’s drive west of Havana.

“They love Diego. They adore you, whether you like it or not. They want to take him fishing and they know all about him,” Harding told Garcia.

Garcia just sat and smiled; he said he likes that idea, too.

“I feel like we could just walk into that school and we’d be warmly received,” Murray said of how friendly the letters have been.

Murray and Harding translate the letters from Spanish to English for Garcia, who can speak some Spanish, but hasn’t yet mastered reading the language.

EXCHANGE STARTS

The exchange started after Harding and her boyfriend, Eric Kessler, who lives in Friday Harbor, Washington, and who also goes to Cuba with Classic Journeys, decided they would like to see more interaction between the school and the guests they take on their cultural exchange trips.

“We were always trying to find a way to engage people, and Eric and I thought of this as a way to get into the classroom and talk to the students and bring in guests,” Harding said.

Harding posed the pen-pal idea to Murray, who loved it. Kessler suggested it to his daughter, Addi, and her class at the Spring Street International School in Friday Harbor. Addi’s class also has been engaging Cuban students in the upper grades, Harding said.

Harding and Kessler go to Cuba at different times. Both bring the Cuban students donations of books in Spanish and English, as well as pens and paper to make the drawings easier.

“The Cuban students show genuine interest in this intentional exchange. They are very isolated in Cuba and seem to hunger to learn about the outside world,” Harding said.

“On my last tour in October, one guest asked the students what they think of the exchange, and they answered enthusiastically, in much the way Diego answered similar questions. They appreciate learning about other cultures and what the children are like there,” said Harding.

It surprised the students, for example, that Garcia doesn’t have a television.

“They expected everybody in this country to be affluent and they are kind of surprised that we might be on economic par or lower than they are,” Murray said. She and Garcia live in a traditional Mongolian ger with no electricity, located down the gravel road from Harding, not far from Chimacum schools. “I’ve chosen to live a really simple, pared-down life for personal beliefs.”

“They were shocked,” Harding said of discovering Garcia didn’t have TV. “They were feeling that [he was] horribly deprived and they invited him to come to Cuba to watch television.”

Garcia, who loves nature, said he doesn’t feel deprived at all and his only interest in TV would be to watch “Naruto,” a Japanese anime program.

What would make him feel deprived, he said, is losing his connection with his pen pals.

TRUMP AND CUBA

And that raises concerns about what Trump might do once he’s in office.

Obama opened up Cuba with an executive order; Trump could close it down with a similar move.

Harding said she has two more tours to do before Trump takes office in January.

“Of course, we are hoping that the opening will continue, so crayon drawings of a Washington boy fishing beside a lake, building a fort or being followed by his cat on a moonlit walk will continue to make their way to the hands of Cuban children – and drawings of palm trees and the Cuban flag will continue to adorn the walls of a humble dwelling in the cedar forests of Chimacum,” Harding wrote in an email.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Harding said. Trump has talked about supporting the opening of relations between the two countries and about closing it down.

“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal,” Trump tweeted Nov. 28.

Harding wonders if Trump might change his mind once he takes office, since he’s in the travel and leisure business – like her cultural exchange trips.

It’s that cultural exchange that Garcia, whose father is from Mexico, finds interesting.

“I’ve learned about their culture, what they do and their main activities, the way they dress. They all dress in the same [school] uniform,” Garcia said of what he’s learned. He also learned about their holidays and has a suspicion, based on their letters, that Valentine’s Day is more important to them than Christmas.

What Harding, Murray and Garcia said they have learned from the drawings and the stories is that the children in the Las Terrazas community are oriented toward nature. Harding said the village is part of an ecotourism program that’s been going on for some years.

Harding also said that there has been a lot of propaganda about former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and about Cuba. Opening up relations between the countries allows people to meet one another and see for themselves what is going on.

“The three of us live in nature and that’s another point of connection. It’s something we have in common,” said Murray.

Which is why Garcia hopes Trump keeps Cuba open, so perhaps some day, he can go fishing, maybe with Brian and José, who sent a drawing of the two of them fishing on one of the lakes near where they live in Cuba.

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